Conn. Dem counts on Iraq to unseat Shays

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays’s likely Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, challenged the Connecticut congressman last week to debate President Bush’s Iraq policy at some point in the next month.

“Iraq is of such great concern that to wait to have a debate until the fall does a disservice,” said Farrell, a former selectwoman in Westport, Conn. “We need a full and honest accounting of where we are. What’s the plan?”

“Chris has been carrying the president’s water since the beginning and accusing people of politicizing Iraq if they’re critical. Chris needs to account for his position,” she added.

Shays replied to Farrell’s challenge in a statement saying that he had just finished holding 20 community meetings “during which he did exactly what [Farrell] suggests and had a very open and good dialogue with constituents on [Iraq] and many other important issues.”

“There will be plenty of opportunity for debates in the fall,” Shays’s campaign manager said.

Farrell, replying in a statement, shot back: “It is unfortunate that Chris is choosing to hide in Washington, D.C., behind President Bush … instead of meeting me for an honest discussion about our very deep differences on the Iraq war. The people who lose out with Chris’s refusal to this debate are the people of the 4th District.”

The race between Shays and Farrell, who lost to Shays by four percentage points in 2004, is a microcosm of the two parties’ strategies to maximize their gains in the November midterm elections.

Some Democrats, such as Farrell, are trying to make the midterm election a referendum on Bush’s presidency. Republicans successfully pursued a similar national strategy in 1994 when they won control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

But National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the chief House GOP election strategist, has said repeatedly that local politics determine electoral outcomes in congressional elections.

Shays’s support of Bush’s Iraq policy has proved politically risky in his southeastern Connecticut congressional district, where Vice President Al Gore defeated Bush 53-43 percent in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry defeated Bush 52-46 percent in 2004.

Shays, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on national security, voted for the legislation in 2002 that authorized Bush to wage war in Iraq, and he voted against an amendment offered by Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) that would have required approval by the United Nations. Three centrist Republicans, including Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons, voted for Spratt’s amendment, which failed.

Since then, Shays has devoted much time and attention to understanding the dynamics of the war in Iraq. He was one of the first lawmakers to travel to southern Iraq at the start of the war in March 2003 and has traveled there 10 times during the past three years.

Meanwhile, Farrell has used the war in Iraq to make Shays’s district one of the most competitive in the nation.

Republicans have tried to regain the offensive by calling on Farrell to renounce Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) endorsement because his position on the Iraq war is more in line with Republicans than with Democrats.

“The suggestion that being for finishing the job in Iraq [is a losing issue] is ridiculous,” said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It certainly has not had any effect on Joe Lieberman’s popularity.”

“I’m not here to defend Joe,” Farrell said. “That’s Joe’s responsibility. Chris hiding behind Joe is irrelevant.”

Farrell issued her challenge to Shays the same day that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), read on the House floor the names of soldiers and Marines who have died in Iraq.

Farrell and a DCCC spokesman said there was no coordination between her campaign and the DCCC.

Unrelated to his record on the Iraq war, the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Shays on Thursday.